“Why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.“
– Acts 1:11
My Dear Friends in Christ,
Why are you standing there looking at the sky? Try it sometime. Stand outside in a crowded space and look up at the sky for a while. I guarantee you, that, if you do it hard enough and long enough, someone else in that place will follow your lead, even if there is nothing but blue sky to see. Why are you standing there looking up at the sky? In our first reading today the angels chide the disciples of Jesus for standing there with their heads up and their eyes fixed on the sky. Perhaps it is the same two angels who, just a few weeks ago called them out for looking down at the empty tomb, “Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here but has been raised…”
Perhaps it seems like they can’t win, or at least they can’t find Jesus and in both cases, the Gospel writer Mark makes sure to mention that while they saw with the eyes of their body, they doubted. They did not believe with the eyes of faith. It’s one of the primary reasons for unbelief: people who should know better are looking for all the wrong evidence… but we’ll get to that in a second.
We’ve spent the last few weeks focusing on Meeting Jesus, on unpacking the images Jesus uses to describe Himself and the relationship He seeks with us. It started with the Good Shepherd and that short, funny little video which served as profound reminder that God is patient with us, that God cares for us, not when we clean ourselves up or get our act together, but when we need help, even if we don’t know it or think otherwise. And in that image, Jesus also makes clear that as the Good Shepherd, He is constantly seeking out those who have strayed, not to condemn them or drag them back kicking and screaming to the fold, but reaching out to the where they are, loving them as they are and then carrying them gently on His shoulders, caring for them, watching over them, feeding and watering them all the time. Then it was the vine and the branches, the vine seeking to keep the branches connected and nourished, not just with something but with the Vine’s own very essence. The vine literally pours it’s essence into the branch that the branch may become fruitful, producing fruit that will last and produce an abundance of delightful wine.
Last week, the image shifted a bit, less figurative, less poetic but far easier to understand and more drastic in the relationship offered. The image of a friend of Jesus suggests a certain equality. God humbles the Divine self if offering us friendship, in lowering dignity to raise us up that we might share in the very life of God. But now comes the hitch, the challenge. Jesus ascends into Heaven, taking His earthly Body with Him. Suddenly, everything’s different. How can we meet someone who’s “not there?” We don’t get to meet Jesus, don’t get to encounter Him in the same way we meet our other friends. We can call on the telephone, talk over the back fence, run into each other at Safeway, or plan a cocktail party, even by Zoom. But we can meet Jesus…
It is a perfect moment then to pause and reflect for a moment about where we look for Jesus and how we can meet Him. The Ascension is when we celebrate that right order is restored. The Son of God has returned to Heaven, to take His rightful place (if you’ll pardon the pun) at the right hand of the Father, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age but… the one to come. Remember, the Son of God had emptied Himself, as Saint Paul said in his letter to the Philippians, to come to us. The omniscient, omnipotent God humbled Himself to take on our human form. As the human, Jesus Christ, the Son of God came to us, gave Himself to us, suffered and died for us. With the power of His love, He rose from the dead and appeared to those who knew Him and let them know He forgave them and loved them. And now, He has returned to the Father. God is in His heaven and all is right with the world.
Well, not all is right. After all, the disciples still can’t find him, can’t seem to meet Him. Imagine: as well as they knew Him, they’re still having trouble: They looked first in the tomb, but He wasn’t among the dead. Then they looked up in the sky, but He wasn’t in clouds. Doesn’t this sound like our own search for Jesus? Too often we look among the things of this world: money, power, sex, food, drugs, fame, comfort, safety, security. But when we focus on these things, when we look here, we are reminded that these things are not ends in themselves and, if they become gods, idols rather, then lead to death. But the opposite is also true, isn’t it? Jesus is not to be found in some pie-in-the-sky theology. Jesus is not a doctrine or theoretical conscript. He is not canon law, liturgical rubric, or theological doctrine. Sure, these are important, helpful, but if these become our idols than our feet are never grounded, and we are no better than kites blowing in the wind.
Jesus refuses to show Himself in a way that demands belief in Him as the Son of God. His presence in in the world is not “demand” but “INVITATION,” about bringing God’s love into the world and proposing that His disciples share that love with others: Love one another… HOW?… as I have loved you. It’s the same reason that Jesus refused to use God’s omnipotent power to defeat the Roman soldier and the Temple guard as they came to take Him away when, to take Him into custody on the night before He was crucified. Rather, Jesus sacrificed Himself for them and for us. And here, at the Ascension, with the disciples, Jesus refuses to beguile them with a display of earthly power, or oratory about messiahship or fitting into their patterns. They will find the truth only as they look through their circumstances and, by faith, with the eyes of faith, perceive the hidden realities, the mysteries of God’s love made known, as He did when He was with them on earth.
And so too for us. To meet Jesus, we cannot expect proof as the world demands it. We must look beyond either the things of death or the things of the sky. We must look at the world not as the world does. No, we must look at the world to see Jesus, to meet Jesus, to share Jesus. This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven. The angels remind the disciples and us that we will only find Jesus if we look for Him in the ways He promised to remain with us. Remember, God came, not as the great warrior king that would brutally put down the Romans and free them but as the gentle lamb who would not break the bruised reed or quench the smoldering wick. Remember Jesus met them not as the stern judge ready to punish them for their actions but as the great friend who would eat with them and share God’s love. Remember that he gave them His Body and Blood to stay with them and then challenged them to go forth Baptizing in His name. Remember, he called Himself the Good Shepherd, not only taking care of the sheep but willing to die for them. Remember He called Himself the Vine, who sought not only to keep the branches close and connected but filled with very essence of who God is and how God works. Remember, Jesus made them His friends, a daringly intimate relationship that suggest a certain equality between the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent Creator and one of the lowly creatures, all in humility to be close to us.
And that’s why they can’t stand there with their heads in the clouds. In appearing to them after His resurrection, in forgiving them their sins and failures, even here in our first reading in answering their questions, Jesus has shifted the focus from knowing Him to sending them. Jesus has redefined what a “kingdom” is and has also redefined for Christians the understanding of Jesus as Messiah. The disciples are sent out in His name, using His power, offering His teachings. In fact, the disciples are sent out to continue His work, the work of Jesus in building the Kingdom of the God. The kingdom of God is not a territory or political realm. It is the rule of God over human hearts. It is initiated in the prophetic work of Jesus, not only in exorcisms and healings, but above all in the “healing of the people”: the call of the outcast into fellowship. Now, because Jesus is enthroned as King-Messiah, he can pour out the Spirit on his apostolic successors through whom his rule will be exercised over the people (Acts 2:33–36). The “kingdom” is about restoring the people of God through the Holy Spirit, so that they can live and serve, so they can recognize as their leader the apostles, His witnesses, both in testifying about Him but also proclaiming this Good News, witness to others. And this same Spirit will allow them to know and revel in and make use of the messianic blessings of harmony and communion with God and with one another. This restoration will take place through the witnessing activity of the apostles after they receive “a power from the Holy Spirit.”
And so, we must look for Jesus as we pray for and ask for and seek this powerful Spirit. Then we will see Jesus in the kindness and gentleness and reconciliation of others. Indeed, we must be kind and gentle and forgiving to others so that they might encounter Jesus as well. And we must look for him in his Church that keeps us nourished by His Body and Blood and provides us the way to Baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Spirit. And when we look here, we will remember that he would not leave us orphan and that he promised to remain with us far longer than we search for Him: Lo, I am with you always until the end of the age.
And, then? We must choose what we do with God’s gift. The final choice is clear: The commission is to take the good news of what God has done in Jesus—of all that God has done in Jesus. We put aside our unbelief even as we struggle to see the “evidence” of providing the risen Christ to others. The presence of God, the promise of Jesus, the gift of the Spirit make any of it possible. Yet still we have to risk ourselves in the mission. The invitation of Jesus to us is to learn the lesson which the disciples finally grasped, to go forward to continue His work. The gospel is truly ‘open-ended’, that we may complete the story in our lives.
Each us writes a little bit more of the Gospel in the ways that we meet Jesus and in the ways that we allow others to meet Jesus in us and through us. Stay tuned…